Ah, if only we were back in the good old days -- like, three years ago -- when it wasn't until March that I started hearing from fans whose coach just got dumped. Alas, I guess that is officially a bygone era.
Jerry Wainwright, who had a career record of 186-145 before taking over at DePaul five years ago, was let go this week with his Blue Demons carrying a 7-8 record (0-3 Big East), making him the fourth coach this season to lose his job (Fordham's Derek Whittenberg, Penn's Glen Miller and Dartmouth's Terry Dunn are the others). Nobody is surprised that Wainwright didn't last, but even so the timing was illogical and unfortunate. DePaul is going to lose a lot this season no matter who is on the sidelines. Might as well let the guy finish his job.
And so, as I dip into this week's mailbag, let me begin with a couple of disgruntled Windy City natives:
In the wake of the Jerry Wainwright firing, the Chicago Tribune ran an article wondering if anyone can win at DePaul anymore. What's your take? Can DePaul ever get back to where it was in the 1980s? Can it win in any capacity in the hypercompetitive Big East? What would it take?-- Nick, Chicago
You're right that Wainwright is a great person (which he is), but as a DePaul season ticket holder (and an Illini grad who worked in the SID office when Bill Self was there), Wainwright was arguably the worst game coach, recruiter and game planner I have ever seen. After 4 1/2 years, I was still not sure what his philosophy was on offense or defense. The next play that DePaul runs will be their first one in a long time. He subbed like it was a hockey game and his teams lacked fundamentals and got worse as the seasons went on. Obviously you never want to see anyone lose their job, but this was long overdue. Four years is enough time to show improvement.-- Matt Rapaport, Chicago
First of all, I disagree with Matt's assessment of Wainwright's coaching abilities. This is still the same guy who went to the NCAA tournament three times in a five-year span at UNC-Wilmington and Richmond. That is not easy to do. I will, however, allow that Wainwright had enough time to show he could win at DePaul, but we all know the reason he didn't: His players weren't good enough. Which, of course, is his fault.
Second, I don't care how bad a coach is. Unless he is abusive to his players or causing some sort of ancillary problem (as apparently was the case at Dartmouth), there is no reason -- none -- to fire him on Jan. 11. The fact is, the school wanted to get rid of Wainwright at the end of last season but couldn't come up with the money to buy him out -- which by today's standards was not a lot. At season's end, athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto ordered Wainwright to change up his staff and he did, which included firing his own son. The school made the decision to stay with the coach, and it should have lived with that decision for another seven weeks.
As for where DePaul goes from here, that terrific Tribune story by Brian Hamilton tells you all you need to know. The only Big East school that spends less money on its men's basketball program is South Florida. The Blue Demons play their games not in a gleaming on-campus arena, and not even in the United Center, but rather at something called Allstate Arena, which sits out by O'Hare airport. As for returning to the glory years of the '80s, I would never say never, but I would say it's not likely. DePaul spent much of its glory days under Ray Meyer as an independent before moving into Conference USA, which provided weaker competition and was a better geographic fit than the Big East. Those days also came before the massive, expensive arms race in which so many schools have spent tens of millions of dollars to upgrade their facilities, leaving the school hopelessly behind the times. At DePaul a great year means you get to finish seventh in the league. Who in the world will want to put up with that?
So you can scratch all the big names off your list if you're hunting for a successor to Wainwright. It goes without saying that the next coach will have to have strong ties to Chicago, because without that there is not much reason why Chicago kids would want to play for DePaul. That's why I agree with many of the experts who have said that the front-runner for the job will be Southern Illinois coach Chris Lowery. Not only is Lowery a terrific young coach (though the Salukis have not made the NCAA tournament the last two years after getting there three straight times), but one of his assistant coaches is Lance Irvin, whose father, Mac, runs the premier summer program in Chicago. (You know the high school scene is irrelevant, right?) As Jeff Goodman reported at FoxSports.com, Lowery also coached the son of the man who runs the other prominent program in town, the Illinois Wolves, which produced Evan Turner among other notables who didn't play for DePaul.
Other possibilities being thrown out there are Oregon State's Craig Robinson, who of course brings the cachet of being Barack Obama's brother-in-law, and fellow Chicago native Isiah Thomas. But Oregon State is having a terrible year, and while Zeke would certainly create a splash he also brings with him plenty of baggage. So let me bring up a name that I haven't seen mentioned: Dayton's Brian Gregory, who grew up in Mount Prospect, Ill, just outside of Chicago, was a longtime assistant at Michigan State and has proven that he can recruit and coach city kids from the Midwest. I would argue that the Dayton job is far better than DePaul, but if DePaul came at Gregory with enough money and commitment to the program, I believe he would give a long, hard listen.
As for the rest of the mailbag, I lead with what may be the most prescient e-mail I've ever received. It came in last week from a Tennessee fan before the Volunteers upset top-ranked Kansas:
Setting aside what it means off the court, maybe the situation on the court isn't quite as bad as it looks at Tennessee. Look, I like Tyler Smith and think the other guys have talent, but it seemed this team for a couple of years now has lacked chemistry. When they've been of one mind, they've been fantastic. When they haven't, they've been frustrating as hell. A starting five of Chism, Hopson, Prince, Bobby Maze and maybe Ro Woolridge still has to be able to play with the most of the teams in the country. Now the rest of the guys have clear roles, the rotation will be tighter. The bench isn't deep with scholarship guys, but two of the walk-ons had offers to other D-1 schools, so they're not terrible. Now, this is before the Kansas showdown, but I think there's a good chance we see a tighter, more cohesive, more consistent, albeit less talented, Tennessee team in the coming months.-- John G., Knoxville, Tenn.
John, my friend, you are Kreskin. I will have to check in with you before I write my next Pickoff column. Oh, and you got any stock tips?
Better still, it looks like the situation will improve more quickly than either of us anticipated. Bruce Pearl told me on my new show Courtside on CBS College Sports that there is a good chance the remaining three suspended players will return to the team in the foreseeable future. He said he expects to make that decision sometime this week.
Pearl has handled this whole situation like the stand-up guy he is. You should know he agreed to come on the show on Saturday, even before the big upset.
If Saturday goes in our favor (home vs. the surprising K-State Wildcats) then I wonder what your take on Mizzou's basketball team would be. We are not as "solid" as we were last year, definitely more "streaky", but when you look at some sabermetric style basketball numbers, this team looks like it could run with some 1 and 2 seed-type teams.-- Jay Sparks, Columbia, Mo.
I don't need stats to tell me this Missouri team is good. That's why I picked them to beat Kansas State at home, which, of course, they did. In some ways I was even more impressed by their five-point win at Texas Tech on Wednesday night. Not only did that come on the road, but it also came after a big, emotional win. The Tigers should have been primed for a letdown, but they fought through it. That tells you something.
This team is not as deep as last year's Elite Eight squad, but it is a better defensive team despite not having a lot of size inside. Mizzou is ranked sixth in the country in defensive efficiency (compared to 13th last year, per kenpom.com) and 38th offensively (down from 8th). I also worry about the team's lack of a true offensive point guard; even while beating K-State the Tigers turned it over 20 times and had just 9 assists on 20 made baskets. But I have always believed that coach Mike Anderson was peerless when it came to recruiting players and developing them to execute his unique, end-to-end style. This team is a reflection of that.
You'll recall that I tried to prod Illinois fans into sending me some electronic disdain by suggesting they had become apathetic after I left them out of my stock report. Instead, I only got emphatic expressions of ... apathy.
Seth, as a devoted Illini fan I found it hard to complain about your decision not to comment on the team's "stock." I've watched them on television several times this year and was in attendance at the game against Gonzaga. My reading on them is a "hold." They have talent but are quite young, particularly in the backcourt where D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul are at times brilliant and yet subject to turnovers and mental errors. The issue I see with this team is that there is no "go to" guy when they need one ... I also sometimes question coach Weber's "ego management." He's pretty critical at times and seems to have difficulty dealing out praise when earned -- i.e. he should be dishing public praise and private rebukes when it comes to his players. Your thoughts on this analysis, please.--Bernie Biagini, Lafayette, Colo.
I don't think Illinois fans are any less passionate for the Illini, or burned out after a couple of less than hoped for seasons, or apathetic about your column. We're just confused about which team will show up on the court, for any given half, let alone a particular game! Are they the team that scorched Clemson in the second half or the one that collapsed against Utah or somewhere in between? If you can figure it out we'd love to know the answer.-- Ray Zielinski, Champaign, Ill.
I'm sure Bruce Weber would love to figure it out, too. Right now, the Clemson game is the one that feels like an aberration. The Illini have talent, but they really lack toughness, especially on the defensive end. Yes, they're playing freshmen, but right now 6-3 junior guard Demetri McCamey, who is supposed to be the veteran leader, is a bigger problem. Weber tried demoting McCamey from the starting lineup for two games in an effort to light his fire on D, though McCamey still played a lot of minutes and returned to the starting lineup for Tuesday night's win over Penn State.
The good news is the Illini took care of business during the soft part of their schedule and are undefeated in the Big Ten. Now they have to play at Michigan State followed by Purdue at home. I believe that Illinois will be an NCAA tournament team, but I agree with Bernie, Ray and the rest of Illini Nation that right now they're nothing to get excited about.
After just watching Vandy thump Florida on ESPN, it looks like you were way off in your assessment of the Commodores' toughness. That's exactly how they won the game by being way more physical than we were in the second half. They out rebounded, out defended, and overall kicked our butts physically in the second half. From what I saw today, and with Tennessee's problems, they clearly look like the second best team in the SEC east.-- Larry, Gainesville, Fla.
Don't mean to be rude, Larry, but it's not exactly a landmark achievement for a team to be tougher than your Gators. Not only does this Florida team lack toughness, but it is also one of the worst-shooting teams Billy Donovan has had. Like I said, I think this Vandy team has some talented players, but you take the true measure of a team when they leave their home gym. Wednesday's one-point win at Alabama was impressive, but it also started a five-game stretch that includes four road games, including at Tennessee and Kentucky later this month. Check back with me in a couple of weeks, and we'll see if Vandy has indeed proved me wrong.
Unlike some of the Syracuse haters out there I think they have a great shot at reaching the Final Four this year. Chemistry is the most underrated aspect of college basketball and this year's Orange team definitely has fantastic chemistry. My question is will Wes Johnson's decision on whether to turn pro or not hinge on what the team ends up doing this year or is he going pro after this year no matter what?--Jim Hoyer, Clayville, N.Y.
First of all, Jim, let me give you my dead-solid guarantee that Wesley Johnson will be a lottery pick in the NBA draft this year. That is a done deal -- and even if he were to come back, it will be because his draft stock sank, not because Syracuse didn't go far enough in the tournament. That aside, I do agree with you about this team's improved chemistry. Everybody I talk to around the program emphasizes how much Jim Boeheim likes coaching this team, which is a not-so-subtle dig at Eric Devendorf and Paul Harris. It's funny how many skeptics came out of the woodwork after the loss at home to Pittsburgh, but the Panthers' win at Cincinnati two days later (not to mention their victory at UConn on Wednesday night) has made that loss a lot more respectable. We'll know a little more about Syracuse in the next two weeks after the Orange have played at West Virginia and Notre Dame, followed by home games against Marquette and Georgetown. I'd anticipate they'll lose one of those four, but even if they do, it will not change my assessment that this is a Final Four-caliber team.
Why does Ryan Kelly get no minutes for Duke? He was recruited like a top-10 recruit and most other top-10 recruits are making significant contributions and getting significant minutes. Is he not as good as we thought? Why do these "big recruits" not play at Duke, often resulting in transfers that leave the roster without key personnel (Michael Thompson, Jamaal Boykin, Eric Boateng, Olaf Czyz just to name some recent examples)? As a big Duke fan and alum, I can never understand Coach K's lack of faith in young players (particularly big men). The situation seems to be repeating itself with Kelly. I can't help but think that the only result will be another top ten recruit wasted, transferring to a lesser program.-- Zach Brodsky, New York City
First of all, I think Zach is overrating a bit where Kelly stood in the recruiting world upon entering Duke. Yes, Rivals.com ranked him 20th in the Class of 2009, but most people I talked to believed that 6-foot-10 center Mason Plumlee, whom Rivals ranked 55th, was the better player. I would also recommend that people show a little patience with this process. Not every freshman has to play 20-plus minutes a game, especially when a program has established veterans at that player's position.
Kelly's main problem right now is that his skill set is too similar to Kyle Singler's, and Singler is going to command 30 minutes a game. Kelly is highly skilled but slightly built, and he does not give Duke a physical inside presence like Plumlee does (not to mention Lance Thomas, Brian Zoubek and Miles Plumlee). Kelly only played five minutes in Duke's win over Boston College on Wednesday, and even in that brief spurt he looked lost on the defensive end. I agree it is very hard to come in for three or four minute spurts and have an effect on the game, but if Kelly is going to get more playing time, he's going to have to either earn it in practice or wait his turn. I anticipate it will end up being the latter.
Finally, I got a bunch of e-mails questioning my weekly AP ballot. Serves me right for giving y'all a sneak peek:
Why are the Canes getting no love in the coaches poll or by you? They are 14-1 heading into ACC play (I know the lost to BC by 1). They are Top 30 in the AP but have no votes in the coaches.-- Ryan, New York City
Sorry, but I did not give Miami much consideration this week because they don't have a single quality win -- and they still don't after losing by 15 at Virginia Tech on Wednesday. The Canes' best win was over full-strength South Carolina on a neutral court and at home against Minnesota and Wake Forest, neither of which I ranked as well. Nor do I lightly dismiss that loss at Boston College, which after all has lost this season to Saint Joseph's, Harvard, Rhode Island and Maine. Having blown their chance in Blacksburg, Miami will not have a chance to notch a love-worthy win until February, when they play in succession at Wake, at Florida State, home vs. Georgia Tech, at Clemson and home vs. Duke.
Hey, it seems you don't follow what you write. You wrote that you sell UConn as a team and say their ranking is based on tradition, but you still keep them in the top 15 in your ballot after four losses. Why don't you follow what you write when you send your ballot in?-- Jonathan, Storrs, Conn.
You have to remember that my stock report is not a reflection of how good I think a team is, but rather where I think they're headed relative to where they were when I wrote it. UConn has vindicated my Sell rating by blowing a 19-point lead at Georgetown and falling at home to Pittsburgh. So I'm sure my fellow voters and I will be dropping the Huskies a few spots next week. Still, to drop a team you have to find others who deserved to be moved ahead of them, and at this stage of the season that is getting harder to do.
You ranked Villanova over Purdue due to, as you said, the fact that Villanova has more quality wins. However, if you compare both teams, Purdue is 4-1 against the RPI top 50, while Villanova is only 1-1. Purdue beat the top RPI team (West Virginia) while Villanova lost to the No. 3 RPI team (Temple). Finally, Purdue has an SOS of 34, Villanova has an SOS of 65. So Seth, care to make a correction?-- Chad, Cincinnati
Chad makes some good points, but I won't make a correction -- and not just because of Purdue's loss to Ohio State on Tuesday night. These two teams were basically a coin flip for me, but I went with Nova because I felt like they had three really good wins (at Marquette, neutral court vs. Ole Miss and Dayton), while Purdue had two (Tennessee neutral and West Virginia at home). Obviously I wasn't the only one who felt that way because Villanova ended up being ranked 4th while Purdue was 6th. Now that Villanova is back to full strength in the frontcourt, I think they're going to stay in the top five for a while.
I see you have Wisconsin at 10 and Michigan State at 12, and you dropped Michigan State after an undefeated week. I can only assume that was a typo and you meant to have Michigan State at 10 and Wisconsin at 12 and you didn't forget that Michigan State already beat Wisconsin this season?-- Chris Vanzand, Sastile, N.Y.
I got a couple of e-mails pointing this out this apparent discrepancy. Unfortunately, none of them pointed out that I also voted Wisconsin behind Purdue (5) and Duke (6), whom the Badgers also beat this season. As you can tell by now, I'm a big home-away guy, and Michigan State's win over Wisconsin was in East Lansing, so to me they only get partial credit. Same goes for the Badgers' two big wins in Madison. Furthermore, Michigan State's loss to Florida in neutral-court Atlantic City is looking worse over time, and while Wisconsin's loss to Green Bay was pretty bad, at least it came on the road.
But you know what? I just spent more time thinking about where to rank those two in answering this e-mail than I did while assembling my ballot. I spend all week watching games, talking on the phone and reading everything I can about college hoops. When I get to putting together the ballot Sunday night, I try not to think too much and in the end I go with my gut. This ain't football, you know, and thank goodness for that.